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How to Win Your Next Race

The bigger the fleet, the harder it can be to score consistent top finishes, but a couple of young 420 aces show how it can be done.

Cordelia Burn and crew Sarah Moeder
International 420 standouts Cordelia Burn and crew Sarah Moeder work the open course after a clean start at the 2019 US Sailing Youth Championship. Peter Slack

For a couple of years, I’d been watching the results for Club 420 racing, and two names always kept appearing at the top: Cordelia Burn and crew Sarah Moeder, from Bay Head YC in New Jersey. I really wanted to know how they managed to win almost every Club 420 event they entered, some by wide margins. Since they were an East Coast team and I coach on the West Coast, I’d never seen them race. But this past July, at the 2021 Club 420 Nationals in New Jersey, I got my chance.

There, I observed and got a few great videos of Burn and Moeder implementing their winning strategy, and as luck would have it, I got to coach our group of West Coast sailors along with coach Sarah Burn, Cordelia’s older sister, who also dominated the C420 class until she moved on to college. Sarah told me her younger sister was pretty conservative on the starting line, seldom started at an end, avoided major errors and was very fast. In watching them, that’s exactly what I saw.

We were coaching a big group of mostly West Coast sailors, which included the eventual winners of the event, Piper Holthus and Sophia Pearce, both on a team I started coaching during the pandemic called NB4T, or Newport Beach 420 Team, based out of Bahia Corinthian YC. Holthus and Pearce followed a similar starting strategy to Burn and Moeder: They were also really quick around the track and sailed super-smart upwind legs. After the first day, they were in the top of the fleet. In our evening debrief, Holthus, the skipper, provided a succinct explanation of their upwind sailing strategy that was nothing short of brilliant in its simplicity. Their decision-making mostly involved the compass headings and the crew calling ­percentages to layline.

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Two teams, two great approaches. Here’s how Burn and Moeder managed the starts and Holthus and Pearce called the first upwind legs.

The Start

For this event, the 132-boat fleet was split into two groups, which meant there were 65 boats on the line. It was a big line, and before the start, Burn and Moeder hung out above the center of the starting line, near the gate area, about five boatlengths to windward. In that time, they looked upwind for pressure and did a few head-to-winds to keep track of the shifts. They’d already figured out the bearing of the starting line, and their wind checks were to figure out the favored end of the starting line and recognize which phase the wind was in. That helped them make a game plan for where they wanted to start and where they wanted to go on the first beat.

By being upwind of the starting line and out of the melee of boats going back and forth, Burn and Moeder had few distractions and were able to focus more on the wind, as well as get accurate head-to-wind numbers with no disturbance. They could also see up the course a lot better. Once they did their final upwind check, they bore away and sailed wing and wing, dead downwind, toward the starting line. Or, depending on where they wanted to start, they reached back down. As they came down, they looked for an open space in the section of the line in which they wanted to start, which was almost always just left or right of center, depending on their game plan. The cool thing is, being above the line looking down at the fleet, they could more easily see groups or clusters of boats. Their goal was to avoid those clusters.

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As they got back to the line, there were around two and a half to three minutes before the start—plenty of time to get into the mix, do their own setup, and manage the congestion, avoiding crowds. One time, I saw a crowd form around them at about a minute left, and Burn simply bore away, jibed, sailed out of it, and ended up 20 yards to the right of where she had first set up, which was more open.

With this technique, don’t come down so late that you can’t find a space. You have to know when your fleet likes to set up. And remember, the more crowded the starting line, the sooner you have to come back and claim your spot. I call it “coveted real estate.” That might be when the line is a bit short for the number of boats racing, or possibly everyone wants to go right and is setting up in the upper half of the line, creating a crowd. You can learn this through experience with your fleet and real-time observation of its behavior. The more coveted the real estate, the sooner you’ve got to get to your area and stake your claim.

One of the keys to ­starting in the middle of the line is you can’t be timid. It’s a mistake to start just right or left of center and be bow back or a little nervous about being over. That’s because, typically, one end is favored, and if you start bow back in the middle, you won’t have a decent race because you’re going to be too far behind those who started at the favored end. So, if you’re going to use this approach, be bold and push the line, making sure you have the confidence provided by a line sight, solid pings, or a great eye for seeing the starting line. Burn and Moeder did that, as did Holthus and Pearce.

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You must also have good speed. If you do, you can give up a little starting-line bias by not being right at the favored end. In a 65-boat fleet, if the boat end is favored, position yourself slightly right of center in open space; if the pin is favored, set up slightly left of center in open space. It’s OK to let the open space dictate where you set up. Sometimes you can get a little closer to the favored end and that’s fine; sometimes you’re a little farther away. With solid boatspeed, you’ll make up some of the bias you’re giving up, and by starting in low congestion, your chances of a great start go up dramatically. This is a major key with this formula. You might not be winning races, but you increase your chances of solid single-digit finishes. Another way to look at it is that you are decreasing your chances of making major mistakes and finishing deep, such as trying to win the pin and getting caught in a pileup while the fleet sails on. Also, this conservative approach allows you to hedge, tactically. If you start at the pin, go left and the right pays, you will be deep. But if you start left of center, go left and the right pays, you are closer to midfleet when you start your comeback.

Once they started, both teams focused on sailing the long tack. In this regatta, it was often sailing straight—starboard was often long or at least neutral. But a couple of times there were big left shifts and port became long. By punching out a little bit at the start and being fast, if in a left phase, you can shortly get onto port tack. Then it’s just about locking it in and going fast.

Managing the Upwind Leg

After the first day of the regatta, Holthus and Pearce had all single-digit finishes, which in a 65-boat fleet is great, and they were tied for second overall. I asked them what they were doing upwind. Holthus said: “Coach, we started in low density, got on the long tack and focused on sailing fast. After the 50-50 midpoint, Sophia would start calling percentages to layline to help me know where we were on the course and how much time was left to layline. She would say, ‘40‑60, 30-70, 20-80,’ etc., and that information helped me determine what type of header we were willing to tack on. If we had plenty of time to layline, I would wait for a big header. If time was running out, I would tack on a smaller shift. Once on the new long tack, we repeated the process, maximizing speed toward the mark and minimizing ­maneuvers. That’s all we did.”

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It sounded familiar because I have my buddy Erik Shampain call percentage to layline for me, as other tacticians have teammates do for them. It really helps the tactician place the boat on the course from a top-down view, without looking around too much. For example, dead center on the course, on starboard, is 50-50. That means 50 percent of the course is in front of you to the port tack layline, and if you were to tack, you would have 50 percent of the course in front of you to the starboard tack layline. If you were to plot your position on a grid system, you’d be in the center of the course, relative to the wind’s current phase. In other words, you might not be dead center geographically, but with the current wind direction, you’re equal distance from each layline.

Being 50-50 also means you have equal options: No tack is long, and you can sail straight or tack, depending on what side you like or what phase you are in—lifted or headed. If Holthus and Pearce got a big header at 50-50, they would tack, but if lifted, they would continue ­sailing straight.

Let’s follow them on a typical leg. They’ve gotten the start they wanted, and Pearce is now calling out the percentages and says, “40-60.” That means the other tack, port tack, is starting to become the long tack, but they still have 40 percent left to the port layline. If they were lifted at 40-60, they’d continue because they have time to wait for a nice header.

Pearce’s next call is “30-70.” Now Holthus is thinking, OK, if we get a header, we’re going to tack because the other tack is getting long. But we have a little time left to wait for a nice-size header. It’s a 15-degree oscillating day, and she’s ­waiting for a bigger shift.

Pearce soon says, “20-80.” Holthus is starting to itch to tack now. After being lifted for a long time, she is willing to tack on a smaller header just to head toward the mark again. So, they tack to port at 20-80, down 7 degrees from the all-time lift, which is actually just a neutral number. If they had been super-lifted and continued on starboard, they would have eventually reached 10-90. Then, even if they were still lifted, they should tack, leaving some real estate to play with and expecting the wind to shift back left at some point, lifting them up toward the mark on port. In an ideal world, you can tack in the 30-70 to 20-80 range to head the other way, but the shifts play a part in your decision, and sometimes you have to be patient, hoping for the header to come soon before you get too close to layline.

Being 50-50 also means you have equal options: No tack is long, and you can sail straight or tack, depending on what side you like or what phase you are in—lifted or headed.

In our example, Holthus and Pearce tacked at 20-80, which means that on port tack they’re now 80-20, the long tack toward the mark. Now while sailing on port tack the percentages start to change: 70-30, 60-40, 50-50, and then 40-60. In an ideal world, they could sail all the way to the starboard tack layline area, get a header and then tack, but that is rare. In this example, they get a big header when at 40-60, so they tack back to starboard to get on the long tack and stay in phase. One minute later, they get a big left shift, so they tack back, and that takes them to their final starboard layline call. They round the top mark a solid seventh. With great speed, patience and strong decision-making, they pass three boats over the next 20 minutes and finish fourth, a great keeper in a 65-boat fleet.

If you spend some time thinking about percentages to laylines, you will realize that if you get a header, it changes your distance to layline. Headers make the tack you are on shorter, heading you away from the mark, therefore putting you closer to layline. Lifts make your tack longer, which is why you sail them upwind. For example, if you are 40-60 and get a header, all of the sudden you are closer to layline and might be 30-70 or even 20-80, so you tack.

The girls executed the above strategy for the whole regatta, getting great starts, positioning themselves just to either side of center of the line in open space, and boldly pushed the starting line without being over. Then they simply sailed the numbers upwind using ­percentage-of-layline calls to help make decisions.

All of this came together in the final race. At the start, they liked the right side of the course where they saw more wind, and the wind shifts were in a left phase. Because of this, they started just right of center in a great hole, pushed the line, and shortly thereafter got onto the long port tack. After a solid first beat, they were in second at the top mark behind a boat that took a more aggressive approach and sent it hard right. They slowly reeled in the leader over the next lap in a dying breeze, and took the lead on the final run by getting low of the leader and jumping them on the final jibe into the leeward mark. Not looking back, they extended to win the race by more than 50 meters to top the 132-boat fleet and earn a national championship title. It was a beautiful way for Holthus to finish her Club 420 career before heading off to Georgetown, and it was an awesome win for her crew Pearce, who has been working harder than everyone on becoming the best crew possible throughout the pandemic.

I was so motivated by watching these phenomenal sailors’ simple strategy, I figured I would give it a try in the J/70 at the 45-boat J/70 Pre-Worlds and the 65-boat world championship a few weeks later in Marina Del Rey, California. Lo and behold, we had two great regattas, finishing first and
second, respectively. Thank you, ladies!

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